U.S. Air Force Academy C2C Zachary Svetecz, left, and CSC J.R. Cook. Staff Sgt. Seth Stang
Photo Caption & Credits

Guardians in Training

Dec. 3, 2021

The Space Force is luring would-be pilots at the U.S. Air Force Academy to consider an alternative path shaping the future of a new domain.

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — 

The moment Cadet 4th Class Zachary Szvetecz took control of the FalconSAT-6 satellite, he knew. Over the next eight minutes, it occurred to him that maybe he wasn’t destined to be an Air Force pilot after all. 

Seated in a control room and peering into a video screen he took control of the satellite, the only operational mission element at the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA), a satellite designed and operated by students. 

“That was just like nothing I had ever done before,” he said in a recent interview. “I think that was the day that I was really hooked.”

A few months later, the Space Force was born. And not long after, Col. Jeffrey H. Greenwood was asked to take on a special role as a sort of Space Force ambassador to future Guardians at the Academy. 

We really wanted “to expand and integrate the Space Force at the Air Force Academy,” said Greenwood, who transferred from the Air Force to the Space Force in January. 

I started to realize all the opportunities that were starting to exist” in the Space Force.

 Cadet 2nd Class Zachary Szvetecz

As the Space Force liaison at the academy, he oversees how the school incorporates Space Force knowledge and understanding into the curriculum. The Space Force will take about 10 percent of each Air Force Academy class, meaning about 96 cadets will be commissioned as Space Force officers. Today, there are 31 Guardians assigned to work with cadets, about 5 percent of the officers among the faculty and staff. Eventually, the Space Force hopes to more than double that total, to about 70 Guardians, Greenwood said. 

Szvetecz has another 18 months or so as a cadet and hopes to commission into the Space Force to be a space intelligence officer. Getting hands-on operational space experience at the academy is a big reason why.

An astronautical engineering major—one of the academy’s toughest—he was attracted immediately to the Academy’s I-5 Club, the Institute for Applied Space Policy and Strategy, which is responsible for the FalconSAT-6, a satellite developed and designed by cadets. 

“I was seeing what the Space Force was doing—and U.S. Space Command, what they were doing—and I started to realize all the opportunities that were starting to exist,” Szvetecz said. “A lot of cadets here, myself included, are beginning to figure out that the space domain is the future of everything that the military does.”

‘Two Services, One Academy’ 

The first opportunity for cadets to learn about the Space Force is Doolie Space Intro Day, a two-hour talk during the first week at the academy. There, Space Force officials explain the new service and its career fields, its mentoring programs at the academy, senior leader engagements, industry and commercial space partnerships, and the space-related clubs, coursework, and majors, including astronautical engineering or “astro;” space operations; physics; and a new minor in space warfighting.

Beginning this past summer, the academy is identifying cadets interested in the Space Force, inviting them to fill out a survey for more information. More than 230 of the 1,000 incoming first years signed up, nearly a quarter of the class of 2025. If interest holds, the Space Force will be able to be highly selective, choosing less than half of those attracted to space careers. 

The survey asked cadets to say why they chose the Air Force Academy and what they hoped to do once they graduated, Greenwood said. Not surprisingly, their interest began with wanting to fly. What was surprising was what was next. “By far, No. 1 was still pilot. Folks are coming to the Air Force Academy because they want to fly. But easily, hands down, No. 2?—join the Space Force,” Greenwood said. “Basically, we are two services, one academy … the Space Force academy is the Air Force Academy.”

Like the Marine Corps, which draws about one-sixth of each class at the Naval Academy, the Space Force must attract a portion of each Air Force Academy class, so it was natural for  Greenwood to look to the Naval Academy for inspiration. In addition to its selection process, which is modeled on the Naval Academy’s, the Space Force and Air Force Academy developed Azimuth, a rigorous new three-week training program for Space-option cadets based in part on the Marine Corps’ Leatherneck program for Marine-option midshipmen from the Naval Academy. The first test of that program will run next summer. 

The Air Force Academy will be more than just another commissioning source, Greenwood promised. “We’re the premier commissioning source for the United States Space Force,” he said. “We’re designing, we’re developing, building, and flying satellites. And our cadets are doing that on a daily basis.”

As with the Air Force, the majority of new Space Force officers will have science and engineering degrees in astronautics, mathematics, space operations, and physics.

In 2020, only two astronautical engineering majors were commissioned into the Space Force from the academy. In 2021 that number was up to 10, and it’s on track to be 10 again in 2022.

“That’s where the Space Force wants us to focus,” Greenwood said. “When we talk about this very technical service, I need to attract more folks into those degrees.”

USSF Col. Jeffrey Greenwood informs cadets about the opportunities in the new service. “We really want to expand and integrate the Space Force at the Air Force Academy.” Greenwood transferred from USAF’s Space Command staff to the Space Force and works as the space liaison at the Air Force Academy. Joshua Armstrong/USAFA

Chasing Satellites

The walls that form a ring around Col. Luke Sauter’s astronautics classroom looks like a museum of tinfoil and aluminum boxes, each one an engineering model of the satellites designed, built, tested, launched,and now controlled by students.

Some are wrapped in bright gold foil. Others look like the mini-fridges found in college dorms, with plastic and metal components fastened to their sides. The attachments are the mission modules that contain cameras or other sensors or rocket motors that can propel the satellite to change its orbit with short fuel burns.  

Each one can cost $30 million or more, funded through a partnership with the Air Force Research Laboratory which encourages the use of experimental features.

“Our motto here in the astronautics lab is ‘learning space by doing space,’” said Sauter

Sauter helped build his first satellite as a USAFA student, then went on to earn a master’s in aeronautical and astronautical engineering at MIT and a doctorate in electrical engineering at the University of Surrey in the U.K.

“They will actually go through the build, the test, the operations, and all the way out into actually flying the satellite and then recovering the satellite when it’s done,” Sauter said. Remarkably, the 260 students in the Space Operations Squadron do all that as an extracurricular activity, the largest such program at the school.

Astronautics is about space systems—everything in orbit, traversing through orbit, or coming back from orbit, Sauter said. “It’s how you build things to survive in that space,” he said. “We are 100 percent giving them every experience they would see as an acquisitions officer, building, buying satellites, or flying and operating satellites.”

In 1997, a student-made satellite got a ride on an Atlas-Centaur upper stage rocket that propelled it past geostationary orbit, going on to help prove that radio GPS navigation was possible beyond the GPS constellation.

FalconSAT-6, launched in 2018,conducts experiments with its broadband signal, an experimental solar panel, a carbon nanotube, a Boeing retroflexor, an ion thruster, and a contamination measurement experiment.

“They’ll talk to it, they’ll get data down, they’ll tell it what to do next,” Sauter said. “The cadets are operating it every day, and it’s been doing great. Hundreds of cadets have had the opportunity to fly this satellite and [so will] hundreds more.”

Large rooftop antennas link the astro department to the satellite and ground stations at Edwards Air Force Base, Calf., and half-way around the world in Ghana.

Three cadets communicate daily with the satellite: an upperclass commander, a ground station operator, and a spacecraft systems operator. That’s the same structure they will experience in the Space Force, said Sauter.

Students even participate in U.S. Space Command’s Sprint Advanced Concept Training (SACT) exercise, helping to hone space domain awareness as a Red asset that SPACECOM uses its sensors to hunt down.

“We’ll scoot around and see if they can try to find us,” said Sauter.

Cadets get exposure to operational activities and an active mission. “Every day when they fly and they get data, that data is going out to the [Air Force Research Lab]. It’s going out to other DOD customers who are using this data for real-world operations and effects and technology demonstrations,” Sauter noted.

The newest student satellite, FalconSAT-8, launched in 2020 from the Air Force’s highly secretive X-37 spaceplane. Cadets will eventually take over that mission and run experiments in cooperation with the National Reconnaissance Office.

“That’s why astronautics is really neat,” said Sauter. “It’s taking all this stuff we know and understand about how to build things on Earth and we are applying it now to a drastically different environment in space. And that’s why the advent of the Space Force and what we do is so important.”

Col. Luke Sauter describes the FalconSAT-1 in the astronautics classroom. Sauter said he has 30 to 40 astro majors, with about half aspiring pilots and another 20 percent engineers. Those students have a storied history of successes building and controlling satellites. Abraham Mahshie/staff

More Than Engineers

Cadet 2nd Class J.R. Cook, 20, still wants to be a pilot some- day, but he has higher hopes. 

“I had aspirations when I came here to become an astronaut,” he told Air Force Magazine. He’s hoping that might be a possibility in the future. “The Space Force right now is a really exciting opportunity. But they still don’t have a path for astronauts yet.”

For now, Cook fulfills his space itch as president of the I-5 Club, where he’s helping to develop the next generation of space-minded leaders.

“We’re not just interested in the satellites of today, but we’re interested in the starships of tomorrow,” he said. “We have the opportunity right now, even as cadets, to directly influence the culture and the future of this new branch of the military. I saw that as an opportunity to really take initiative and help kind of shape the space domain into what I would like to see it grow into in the future.”

Yet Cook, aspiring astronaut, pilot, and space pioneer, isn’t an astrophysicist or engineering student, but rather a history major. That’s part of the diversity of knowledge and interests every military service needs. 

“It’s vital that we all have a knowledge and understanding of just how deeply embedded and integrated space is into the joint warfighter today,” he said.

Szvetecz, I-5’s vice president, agreed. Membership in the club has skyrocketed, with 200 new members from the class of 2025 alone.

“There’s a huge demand right now for space and opportunities with space,” Szvetecz said. “In the past, you either came here and you wanted to go pilot, or you didn’t. But now we’re seeing the Space Force is becoming a large share of what cadets are interested in.”

Seven research departments, including astronautics and physics, conduct space-related research

Air Force Lt. Col. Timothy Goines, assistant professor in the department of law, has seen that firsthand, with growing interest in space law.

Goines said cadets are not restrained by conventions. “With a new Space Force, they have to think differently,” he added. “We have to operate differently.” 

Indeed, having placed cadets as interns at the U.S. Space Command and Peterson Space Force Base legal offices, Assistant Professor of Cyber Law and Policy Jeffrey Biller said both students and commands have benefited. 

“We’ve gotten amazing feedback from senior leaders who said, ‘We love their ideas, we love … their flexibility of thought, their ability to look at problems in a new way,’” Biller said.

Several cadets from his spring 2022 space law course will get the chance to present ideas directly to Space Force leaders at a Space Law Conference in April, he said, and others are pursuing independent research projects on remote proximity operations—that is, operating satellites very close to other satellites.

Greenwood said drawing from all majors is helpful in getting at all the possibilities presented in space. “We need diverse thoughts,” he said. “You don’t want to just take a bunch of engineers and throw them into the Space Force and call it good.”

Consider Cook, the history major and aspiring pilot and astronaut who’s become  the I-5 Club president. He said the club wrestles with strategic issues like the lunar cooperation agreement between China and Russia, whether it’s appropriate for the military to operate on the moon, and what space mining might look like.

“There’s an overwhelming consensus that they want to know what we, as cadets, think,” said Cook. “That’s just an exciting thought, because senior Space Force and even Air Force leaders, as well, want to know what we’re thinking about the future of space.”

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the USSF-7 mission with the X-37B spaceplane for the U.S. Space Force rolls from the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex-41, Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla. The X-37B is also acting as a delivery spacecraft for Falconsat-8, a small satellite studying electromagnetic propulsion and antenna technologies for the U.S. Air Force.
Jeff Spots/United Launch Alliance